Academic Freedom or Free Market?

The Minister for Tertiary Education seems determined to see our universities and wananga reduced to organisations whose purpose it is to sell a commodity called education to ‘consumers’ whose primary relationship with such organisations will be a  commercial one.

The National Government today stayed true to their destructive agenda for the tertiary sector,  announcing their intention to ‘reform’ (i.e. degrade) University and Wānanga Governance.

In October last year, the Government released a proposal for reforming councils that included decreasing the number of members on councils, and removing the requirement for councils to include student and staff representatives.  The Greens spoke out against the idea, as did most of the key stakeholders in the sector, with a particular focus on the removal of student and staff representatives from councils.

It looked then like the Government was dragging universities down the same route they took polytech governance boards along in 2009 – removing democratically elected representatives of student, staff and community interests,   and replacing them with a smaller number of Government-appointed positions.

Today, Tertiary Education Minister Steven Joyce restated this agenda, announcing his decision to push ahead with these proposals, which will be introduced into legislation later in the year.

The changes include:

          Reducing the number of members on councils from 12-20 to 8-12

          Removing membership from staff, student and community representatives

          Requiring the Minister and councils to appoint members with governance capability

This is a clear attack on the democracy of universities and part of the relentless drive from this Government to turn our universities into degree factories, rather than independent institutions of higher learning.  Staff, student and community representatives are vital to these councils making sound decisions, as they represent the groups most directly effected by the governance decisions of universities and wānanga.

I am all in favour of universities offering sound vocational education as part of the overall mix, while running their business activities in a business-like manner, and there is no evidence that they are failing to do that.  As the TEU points out, the Minister himself concedes that our universities are financially stable (despite the unrelenting demand that they must do more with less) and successful by international standards.

But the core business of our institutions of higher education is not to sell a product, it is to offer the best in quality teaching and research, and to fulfil their mandated role as critic and conscience of our society.  Academics may often make governments uncomfortable; may propose ideas and analyses that runs contrary to the ideology of governments of the day, and it is important that they do so without threat of censure.

Academic Freedom Aotearoa articulates this very real concern, saying that

“If the minister makes such a high percentage of council appointments he is more able to pull the strings, and this could mean outspoken academics and students who critique government actions will find themselves in hot water with councils.”

“Even if there are no direct cases in which university and wānanga councils directly censure staff for public critiques undertaken,” says Dr Grey, “the fear generated about biting the hand that feeds will leave all New Zealanders unsure as to whether academics can fulfil their role in our democracy.”

Academic freedom is not an abstract concept, it is (or should be) recognised as a cornerstone of any liberal democracy. The Greens in government will restore an appropriate balance to governance bodies in the tertiary sector.  In the meantime we will oppose any legislation that would limit academic freedom, or reduce the participation of stakeholders in decision making.

Edit : Stuart McCutcheon, VC at Auckland Uni, has said that increasing government influence over universities would harm their international reputation.


2 Comments Posted

  1. Removing membership from staff, student and community representatives

    I believe the word mandatory is missing from between the words ‘removing’ and ‘membership’.

  2. Well said Dave !

    I worked at TAFEnsw (Aust. polytech) a decade ago, when it moved from a Govt. department to a semi-private ‘corporation’ aka TAFE Commission. The thing that became obvious was that educational outcomes seemed to become secondary to financial gains. (privatised/user pays & int’l students, preferred over the ‘run-o-the mill’ programs).. I see the Key-party following the exploits of another John (Howard) in turning Aotearoa/NZ into a corporate, user-pays & money-first company, rather than a country for all to achieve their best !!

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